1990, I had worked for more than a decade in teacher education at
Sunderland (then a Polytechnic, now a University), having thrown myself into the fascinating but very hard work of educating teachers and focusing on the inner and outer lives of children. I loved the job. Always the idealist, I was very committed of the thrilling process of encouraging new teachers in the practice of child-centred education.
In the field of mathematics, for instance. success was measured as the individual child develops problem solving strategies and skills, using observation and the use of evidence.
In time, working as a lecturer basing my work on my ideal principles drained a great deal of both my emotional and intellectual energy, including as it did the supervision of the students actually working in classrooms right across the north-east.
Eventually I became tired and debilitated and rather sank into depression. I was told. “Give your brain a body a rest, Wendy.” So that was why I came to leave the profession which I had relished so much.
Reading Riches of the Earth now I realise that I had been distilling from my subconscious the voices, events and characters from my own rather troubled childhood when I experienced my day-to-day life with great intensity. I see now that this intense inner reference came to inform and enrich my novels and stories as the years have rolled on.
For example, take Riches of The Earth
- my first adult novel. As I read it now, the context and some of the feelings
expressed in its pages bring to my mind my most recent book, Siblings, a
short story collection written nearly 3 decades later than Riches of the
Earth. It dawns on me now that this applies to most of my subsequent novels
However, I would emphasise that I do not tell the same story in every novel; it is much more complex than that. In writing my fiction I am dipping into a complex multi-layered world buried deep within me. As the years have gone by I have this process has been a strong element in my fiction. (I have written essays elsewhere here on Life Twice Tasted about this mirage-like border between memoir and fiction.)
And now I am I am beginning to realise that, in collaboration with my friend literary archivist Donna Maynard, in this process of the exploration of all my work, I am rediscovering myself as a writer and a human being.
I honestly don’t remember thinking about all this as I wrote the novel. Like each of my novels Riches of the Earth flowed from my head through my arm into the ink and onto the page. It is dawning on me now that my academic research and my understanding of children and their thought processes filters through into the novel, as it was very much part of my recent life at that time. My instinctive insight into the lives of my evolving characters was nurtured by and grounded in my professional insights and principles.
So-o-o, here I am recognising that, in writing all my novels, I was then and have been since influenced by my own contemporaneous experience of family life as well as my research – lending sociological and psychological insight alongside the instinct and commitment to what my characters would do next. I do remember loving my characters who reminded me of my own growing children and also the young people who had filled my professional world for so long.
Having completed Riches of the Earth I was
delighted that the prestigious publisher
Headline – then newly established - wished to publish the novel when I first
offered it. Once there I welcomed the support and insight of my editor, the wise
and gifted Anne Williams She guided and
supported with me on my journey through a good number of books. I felt I was in
very good hands until she moved on to higher things, eventually taking on her
present role as a respected agent. Her writers are very lucky. My next editor -
Harriet Evans – a talented writer herself, was also very supportive of my
novels as they emerged. Interestingly, Harriet has proceeded to become a very much-admired
novelist in her own right.
At this point I need to continue the
discussion which I started in the last essay on Life Twice Tasted about
the significance of covers. Delighted as I was at the time that Riches of
the Earth was to be published. the
original hardback cover – although it seemed like a bit of magic at the time –
now looks predictable and stereotyped and not really true to the energy of the
narrative. You will see this included here. However, you will also see that the
cover of the paperback, published in the same year, is infinitely better than
the hardback cover. Susanah’s face at the top is alive and has a sharp
contemporary feel. The World War I aeroplanes on the front and back cover offer
a predictive reference to the role of World War I in the narrative. Altogether
the paperback cover has much greater energy and narrative reference,
So, as I read Riches of the Earth again after more than thirty years, I enjoy afresh revisiting the varied characters as they live their lives from1895 right through to 1914, culminating with the international shock of the First World War. As with novels written during the following decades, many issues precious to me are woven into the narratives – identity, class, war, comradeship, women’s lives, the nature of work, family politics, birth, death, and here in this novel, pacifism.
Incidentally in reading the book again I am also reminded that I have alluded to an historically true event - within the fictional narrative. This is when a young soldier hitches a ride with a pilot who is flying reconnaissance over the battlefield. The boy is amazed as he looks down at the River Somme spread out below him in the French landscape. This incident was inspired by a detail from my research into letters, memoirs and personal histories from that time. Like other true elements, it serves to enhance the authenticity of in my fictional story – all emerging from my deep research into contextual sources which provides and continues to provide deep realism into what are fictional narratives in all my novels.
Lastly, for your further interest I have included here below the synopsis - probably created by Anne Williams – of the story from the cover of the hardback. It is an excellent example of a well-written synopsis. Here it is:
When, in 1895, the Laydon Joneses move into Selby Street they are just another Welsh family who have come to work in the mines of County Durham. But Caradoc Laydon Jones, dour, unforgiving and in his spare time a genius of clockmaker, is a force to be reckoned with, whether it be down the pit, or in the chapel, or in his home where he rules with an iron fist. His daughter Susanah has inherited his strength but will not, she is determined take on his bitterness. And Jonty Clelland the young pacifist schoolmaster by whom she is increasingly intrigued, is the antithesis of her father. At the annual young people’s camp in Livesey Woods it looks as if the attraction between Jonty and Susanah might finally blossom into love - until tragedy intervenes. The news is brought that Susanah’s younger sister has been drowned in the colliery pool and before long her timid mother, who had never learned to speak the language of the English has followed her into her grave.
Overwhelmed by guilt, Susanna is left to look after her grief- maddened father and a handful of brothers, estranging herself from the man whose arms were around her as a little sister drowned. And when her vivacious friend Betty died in childbirth, leaving her husband, local football hero Mervyn Sargant, alone with a tiny baby, Susanah knows what she must do. Without fuss she adopts the child and, at his pleading, finally agrees to marry the broken Mervyn. But as the country enters the nightmare of the First World War, Susannah, prompted by her warm hearted Aunt Bel, begins to realise that life was to be seized and lived – that she, as much as those she loves, has a right to all the riches of the earth has to offer.”
“A vividly textured novel, steeped in the passions and the politics of the north-east, which is the of the Earth is Wendy Robertson’s first novel.”